Prince Nico Mbarga

The death of vocalist and guitarist Prince Nico Mbarga, following a motorcycle accident on June 24, 1997, marked the passing of one of Africa's most influential performers. Although he only recorded one significant hit, "Sweet Mother," in 1976, which sold more than 13 million copies, Mbarga played an important role in the evolution of African music. The son of a Nigerian mother and a Cameroonian father, Mbarga embraced the musical traditions of both cultures. With his soulful vocals set to the light melodies of his acoustic guitar, Mbarga created a unique hybrid of Ibo and Zairean guitar playing and uplifting highlife rhythms. Mbarga's musical approach was inspired by the five years he spent in Cameroon during the Nigerian Civil War of the late '60s. Sharpening his instrumental skills while playing xylophone, conga, drums, and electric guitar in school bands, he made his professional debut as a member of a hotel band, the Melody Orchestra, in 1970. Returning to Nigeria two years later, he formed his own group, Rocafil Jazz, to perform regularly at the Naza Hotel in the eastern Nigerian city of Onitsa. After releasing a disappointing single in 1973, Mbarga and Rocafil Jazz had their first success with their second single, "I No Go Marry My Papa," which became a regional hit. The band's inability to break past their local following, however, resulted in their recording contract being dropped by EMI. The label's decision proved ill-fortuned when the band signed with the Onitsa label and recorded "Sweet Mother." Sung in Pidgin English, the song became one of the top sellers in the history of Nigerian music. In the six years that Mbarga and Recotal Jazz remained with Onitsa, 1975 to 1981, they recorded nine albums. Temporarily relocating to England in 1982, Mbarga became known for his flamboyant, '70s glam rock-inspired performances. While he continued to appear with Rocafil Jazz, Mbargar also performed with London-based highlife band the Ivory Coasters and Cameroonian vocalist Louisiana Tilda. Despite launching his own Polydor-distributed record label, upon returning to Nigeria, Mbarga and the original members of Rocafil Jazz separated after several Cameroon-born members were deported. Although he later formed the New Rocafil Jazz Band, Mbarga failed to match his early success. Leaving music, he turned his attention to managing the two hotels that he owned, Hotel Calbar and the Sweet Mother Hotel. ~ Craig Harris

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